There’s good reason for “Blame” to feel lived-in and authentic: Writer, director and star Quinn Shephard is only 22 years old, making her just a few years removed from the film’s high-school environs. Given the nature of her Arthur Miller-inflected debut, one hopes she had an easier go of it than her character does.
Said heroine is Abigail, and if you’ve read “The Crucible” you might know why. Recently discharged from a mental institution, the troubled teen is now tasked with resuming her studies among a clique of mean girls who write harassing messages on her locker and generally do their utmost to make life miserable. Melissa (Nadia Alexander) serves as ringleader, though Shephard makes plain that Melissa’s habit of spreading misery to others is borne of her own pain. There are more victims than villains here, even if the impulse is always to assign, well, blame.
Enter substitute drama teacher Jeremy (Chris Messina), a kindred spirit who seems to understand Abigail on a level that none of her peers do. He assigns her drama class scenes from “The Crucible,” and when she can find no suitable scene partner, he volunteers to be the John Proctor to her Abigail Williams. If you think you know where this is headed, you probably do, but Shephard is less concerned with scandal than she is with behind-the-scenes power dynamics.
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Abigail herself occasionally recedes into the background as “Blame” becomes more about this world’s overall milieu; every high school is its own self-contained ecosystem, not least because adolescents aren’t known for taking the long view and Shephard is highly attuned to her characters’ inner worlds.
Reminiscent of both Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher” and Melanie Laurent’s “Breathe,” “Blame” finds its heroine repeatedly tripped up on the road to recovery. The details surrounding Abigail’s time away are kept vague, but there’s one common factor in the here and now: pressure, whether perceived or real, to act in accordance with the wishes of men (or, more often, boys).
Abigail senses that her teacher understands her, and so she feels obligated to live up to the image she believes he has of her; Melissa and her co-conspirator devote much of their energy to impressing two male classmates who probably don’t deserve the time of day.
The witch-hunt metaphor that emerges from Abigail’s bullying is more overt than it needs to be, but Shephard clearly didn’t rely on SparkNotes in crafting her film. She starred in a production of “The Crucible” at age 15, an experience she credits with inspiring “Blame;” the result, though under-realized, shows great promise from a filmmaker who’s clearly just getting started.